It has been my recent misfortune to encounter several religious articles and online posts complaining about the schooling system in the United Kingdom. Unfortunate, because as a believer, I counted on them to provide some credible, competent critique. Most fail to do so. Many such articles (whether Muslim or Christian) tend to be written from a position of ultra-puritanism, and almost solely focus on (homo)sexuality. Aside from what is often a weak or misinformed critique, there is a failure to adequately recognise what schools are wittingly or unwittingly imparting onto pupils. Atheism. Or rather, a worldview whereby the only logical conclusion is irreligiosity.
No value judgement will be imposed onto the reader during this article (though it should be plain to the reader what my stance is), and thus I hope for the agreement of religious and irreligious readers (even if the stance of the latter is ‘so what?’). Furthermore, the claim here is not that individual schools and teachers are deliberately encouraging pupils to be atheists, rather they are teaching and promoting the values, ideas and ‘facts’ desired by the political and media establishment, which in 21st Century Britain, is highly secular. This article contains no plea to teach creationism or intelligent design in the name of ‘balance’ (in this authors view, evolution is perfectly compatible with the world religions, and religious persons who vehemently insist that only one can be true are promoting atheism more effectively than even the most militant secularists) nor to withhold or restrict sex education. This Muslim writer believes that sex education is necessary, from contraception, abortion and LGBT issues. There is no conclusive evidence that sex education makes people more ‘sexual,’ and some that suggests it can have the opposite effect.
Throughout this essay I shall discuss how atheism is promoted in UK schools, in three main subjects. Again, I reiterate that most of this is not deliberate on an individual teacher or school level. I also believe that the UK education system remains, in other ways one of the best in the world; despite undergoing a teacher recruitment crisis, most children are given pastoral care, attention and quality teaching. However, as we shall continue to see, schools which might claim, or even view themselves as ‘neutral’ in matters of discussing spirituality and religion are far from it. In addition to exposing the curriculum as biased towards an atheistic world view, I will provide counter facts to many of the claims that are made to learners. We begin with the subject which the UK layperson now almost universally considers the virtual antithesis of religion; science.
One constant featured in science lessons is that children, almost as a rule are presented with the false dichotomy between God and evolution. Only one can be true, and both ideas are mutually exclusive. Children will typically be told that the Biblical creation story was universally taken literally by Christians prior to Charles Darwin, and therefore by undermining this, Darwin and other scientists effectively ‘destroyed religion’ (yes ‘religion,’ not Christianity, most charges made against Christianity are typically extrapolated to ‘religion’ as a whole). Anyone with a moderate grasp of history or theology should know that many Christian philosophers (St Augustine being perhaps the most famous) understood the creation story allegorically, but sadly this is beyond most teachers, even ones teaching religious studies.
Many scientists throughout history have considered evolution and a religious understanding of the world to be fully compatible; almost a millennium before Charles Darwin, scientists in the Islamic world had postulated not only that animals and plants had evolved, but that they had done so by a mechanism that appears to closely resemble natural selection. Many contemporary Christian scientists too, recognise no inherent contradiction in world views. Non-atheistic evolution is not a trendy niche idea conceived by a handful of modernists to get God off the hook. Children, if lucky enough to even hear such a concept mentioned will be told that evolution co existing with God is the brainchild of ‘liberal’ Christianity. The obvious implication being that dogmatists and puritans are the far more consistent believers. Even when previously working in a Catholic school, I was one of the few people who was aware that the Vatican itself has accepted evolution and does not consider it contrary to the Catholic tradition.
It would be unfair however, not to recognise school’s acknowledgement of diversity, and avoiding the humiliation of individuals. Teachers will insist that other beliefs should be respected, and thus I have seen few instances of pupils being humiliated or belittled for their religious beliefs; most schools would rigorously punish such perpetrators. Guarding against humiliating individuals however has no effect on the only logical conclusion pupils are given; science and religion are mutually exclusive. Evolution has overwhelming evidence. Ergo religion (remember, anything specific to fundamentalist Protestantism can now be generalised to ‘religion,’) is false. Some readers, whether believers or not really might consider evolution and the divine to be mutually exclusive. This, I personally find hard to empathise with (I see no reason why life cannot come into existence via an intelligible process which humans can study even implicitly suggests that being has no divine origin), but can still agree that children should at least be informed that many religious thinkers and scientists (including Darwin himself, though his faith suffered due to the philosophical problem of evil) consider evolution and religion to be compatible.
The ‘science versus religion’ narrative imposed onto children in UK schools goes far beyond discussion of evolutionary theory. Rather, in virtually every science topic where religion is referred to, the latter is solely given an obstructive role. The narrative that ‘The Church’ has consistently opposed science for example, is repeated ad nauseum. Unbeknownst to most, this narrative is the birthchild of anti-Catholic propaganda conceived by Protestants after the reformation (along with the misleading and mythical concept of the ‘Dark Ages,’ which featured considerable progress, and compared to the ‘renaissance,’ far less superstition about Witches and far smaller scale wars) but has now evolved to refer to religion in general.
The medieval Catholic Church had a strange way of suppressing science; by building Universities and funding many of the greatest scientists of the age; though we should remember that ‘science’ was not yet considered a truly independent discipline from philosophy. Was the church immune from bias? Obviously not, but this renders them no more ‘anti science’ then a pharmaceutical company who, like many scientific establishments have a vested interest in the results of their research. Contrary to what the laity vaguely believe, the Church did not execute scientists for their science either (for any ‘advanced’ aficionados of ‘freethought’ websites or conferences thinking ‘what about Michael Servetus and Giordano Bruno?’ Read more. They were not executed based on their scientific theories). Did the Church perpetrate vile crimes throughout its history? Like every global superpower from the dawn of civilisation, absolutely. But it did not simply ‘oppose science.’ (Those with Galileo on their mind should do some independent reading to understand why exactly he was tried, and his relatively minor penalty of house arrest). Essentially, children are spoon fed an atheistic version of the previously Protestant narrative. In this modern age however, ‘The Catholic Church was backward and regressive’ has evolved into ‘religion hates science.’
Of course, pupils never learn about suppression of science in the name of atheistic ideologies. Virtually no teachers, let alone pupils I have taught are remotely aware that throughout the 20th Century, atheistic communist regimes outlawed many aspects of science, particularly in quantum physics and cosmology. Arguably the most brutal and genocidal campaign of anti-intellectualism in human history was carried out by the atheistic Khmer rouge in Cambodia. However, pupils are reliably told that rejection of science is solely the domain of the religious, who cling to their beliefs even in the teeth of evidence. Prominent atheist scientists like Fred Hoyle who retained their outdated model of the ‘steady state’ Universe (because the big bang was too ‘Goddy,’ though, like evolution pupils are generally fed the impression that the Big Bang theory and God are somehow opposed) are generally unknown. As pupils are told that religious establishments have rejected or opposed science, it is unsurprisingly that most are ignorant to the idea that religion has ever served as a motivator or inspiration for the scientist. The idea that the Universe is deliberately created, and thus contains intelligible laws to be discovered has been a source of strength for scientists throughout time; from the Islamic scientists of the middle ages, to the likes of Isaac Newton, to modern scientists such as Francis Collins (the head of the human genome project). An understanding of how the Universe worked, they believed, could help humankind better understand the infinite mystery of its ultimate cause.
Science however is not the only subject which sees atheism covertly imparted onto young learners; history and religious studies make a fine accompaniment. Like science, these subjects when taught in UK schools provide the pupils with narratives, which if believed are likely to lead them to conclude that religion is at best, obsolete.
Common myths about the role of religion are endemic throughout school history lessons. One common narrative being that the ‘Dark Ages’ were a time of perpetual backwardness and brutality compared to the more enlightened Greeks and Romans (i.e. the Western Roman Empire, the only one most pupils and seemingly teachers know anything about). Genuine historians of the middle ages widely consider this false, given the advances in architecture, weapons, armour, agriculture and even life expectancy. But the layperson thinks it all the same. All the while, the Church is considered the antagonist, characterised by extreme superstition and putting down all illness to the fickle mood of God, who wasn’t a fan of healers. Anyone who looked suspiciously good at healing was witch due for an extra judicial burning at the stake. The historical reality is that almost all European Witch trials took place after the middle ages, during the renaissance. This however, is never taught as it damages the narrative that the renaissance was fundamentally a time of science and progress because people had learnt not to be oppressed by the church.
Medieval wars (and others) were, as far as history pupils are concerned, generally religious. When I have asked teaching colleagues and pupils alike what proportion of war time causalities over history died in ‘religious or somewhat religious’ conflicts throughout time, the figures given are usually above 60%. According to the official encyclopaedia of wars, the actual figure is around 2%.
The plethora of historical myths believed by pupils and the adult laity (and I count many history teachers in this group) about religion are nigh inexhaustible, but this essay cannot be, so to illustrate the shambolic nature of the ideas pupils receive, I will add a final one. I have spoken to numerous friends, family and pupils who have never met each other and attended separate schools, and were all evidently taught (or allowed to believe) that Protestantism began because Henry VIII wanted to divorce Catherine of Aragon. This, I also was taught, or allowed to believe in school. This staggering myth is probably the only thing pupils will hear about the reformation, arguably the most important historical event in Europe (save perhaps the industrial revolution, another world changing series of events which pupils know nothing about, except that miners took canaries into the coal mines). As far as the average school child is concerned there is only one Martin Luther and he wasn’t German!
Is all this historically inept content atheistic though? Not by absolute necessity. Nonetheless, if every time religion is mentioned it is solely given an antagonistic (or stupid) role; the logical conclusion is that it probably isn’t up to much, and we would be far better without it.
I now conclude with a discussion of Religious Education (RE). I do not think RE lessons necessarily have the same effect per se as History and Science, where any concept of religion is dealt with in almost universally negative terms. Religious Education might be the only exposure to religion that children have, including ones with nominally Christian parents. They might encounter ideas which resonate with them. Religious Education also remains a subject with a reasonable proportion of individually religious teachers. Whilst I have known many religious RE teachers who still go ahead and perpetuate many myths to the detriment of their own religion and its history, they are still less likely to be as aggressive (or passive aggressive) towards the role of religion as others. Contrary to the claim that I have heard from some (‘coincidentally’ staunchly atheistic) teachers, irreligious teachers do not make better RE teachers based on their ‘neutrality.’ The belief that all conceptions of religion and spirituality are solely products of the human brain is not a ‘neutral’ stance. Perhaps an open-minded agnostic, or someone with a fairly universalist religious view (a Sufi Muslim, a Bahai, Sikh, or some sort of Unitarian perhaps) could be considered neutral, though I still question whether the concept of religious ‘neutrality’ is even coherent. A non-believer can be a perfectly good RE teacher; but not because of some innate advantage provided by their non-belief. That pet annoyance of mine aside, whilst there are some positives of Religious Education, and I believe all students should be compelled to study it to at least GCSE level, this subject, like the others, is riddled with simplistic, and often incorrect ideas. If these are believed to be representative of religions, rejecting any notion of religion is the natural outcome. I will be forthright; I believe many RE teachers are, from a subject knowledge perspective, utterly inept. Perhaps I have been unlucky, but from a sample size of around 15 RE teachers I have known well enough to get the measure of, I would say at best five generally ‘knew what they were talking about’ in regard to religions. Of course, one cannot solely blame the teacher when the fault often lies with the curriculum and textbooks. However, a teacher should still be duty bound to point out anything which is unnuanced or wrong, even if this is ‘right’ for the exam. Whether due to the curriculum, ineptitude of the teacher, or both, pupils studying RE encounter a plethora of myths, false facts and extreme simplifications as we shall see.
For example, several RE teachers I have spoken to believed that ‘God’ and ‘Allah’ were two different entities and were amazed to discover that Arab Jews and Christians also call God ‘Allah.’ They looked at me as if I was imparting some unfathomable knowledge when I simply pointed out that ‘Allah’ is simply Arabic for ‘The God,’ and ‘God’ is an old Germanic word, which as speakers of a Germanic language, we still use. Another myth I have seen cropping up, even in textbooks is that Islam outright forbids adoption. I was astounded when I heard some pupils telling me they had learnt this! True, there is some jurisprudence which advocates that adopted children keep their own name and lineage amongst other things (thus all the characteristics of adoption as we may know it would not be there). However, the sole impression learners are left with is that Muslims are not allowed to raise unrelated destitute children! A third painfully common myth which diffuses into the minds of pupils is that Buddhism is a pacifist religion for trendy atheists and hippies (thus many irreligious westerners will happily say ‘I’m not religious but if I was I would be a Buddhist.’). In reality of course, Buddhists have not universally considered their religion a pacifist one, and like all ideas it has had belligerent (and even genocidal; as recently seen in Burma) practitioners. It also has heavens and hells. Lots and lots of them.
Science, when brought in to the RE classroom is invariably given the role of the vanquisher; thus, discussions of stem cells featuring Islam and Christianity will usually be badly informed. No differentiation (pun intended for anyone who studied A level biology) will be made between embryonic and non-embryonic cells (which makes all the difference as the former involve killing embryos and the latter consists of sucking out some bone marrow from a healthy adult). Apparently, Christianity and Islam say no, and that’s that. But why? The answer usually given is the quintessential lame phrase that people of faith themselves hardly ever use: ‘its playing God.’ The only believers who might agree with STEM cells (or any science for that matter) are ‘liberal’ or ‘modern’ Christians. ‘Real’ Christians of course do not agree. They also believe that Satan was a real snake, and the Earth was created in 6 literal days. To the average RE teacher, ‘liberal’ means ‘modern’ and implicitly ‘inauthentic,’ whilst ‘traditional’ means literalistic, anti-intellectual, and probably more consistent with the actual teachings of the faith.
The reality of course is very different; religious literalism and liberalism are not the only available options, or even diametrically opposed to one another. The medieval Catholic Church was less ‘literalistic’ then the Renaissance Protestant one in terms of understanding scripture. However, it was less ‘liberal’ to the extent that there would be one ‘orthodox/correct’ doctrine advocated by the Vatican. The early protestants however thought the Bible should be read and applied in a more literalistic manner, but people could interpret it on a more individual basis, and were thus more ‘liberal’ in this regard. Unfortunately, this seems to be beyond the scope of many RE teachers, many of whom are devoid of even have an undergraduate degree in philosophy, theology or religious studies.
Islam, as I eluded to earlier is also taught woefully poorly. To the average RE teacher, Islam IS the five pillars (which are not actually mentioned in the Holy Qur’an; the central book of Islam, but secondary sources known as the Hadith). The five pillars are important, but learning about them in this way is hardly interesting. Nor is it meant to be. The five pillars are simply a codified five practices which you can empirically ‘put your finger on’ that Muslims should do. To their credit, RE teachers will always maintain that contrary to popular and not so niche ring wing/neoconservative opinion, Islam is not a violent or inherently oppressive belief system, and actions such as terrorism are antithetical to its teachings. On balance I feel it safe to say that pupils who do leave school believing far right/neo conservative/militant atheist narratives about Islam do so despite religious education lessons, not because of them.
One might understandably criticise my woes with the RE curriculum arguing that religious education can only be taught to so much depth. After all, GCSE science is fraught with simplifications to the point that many are good as untrue (the reactions of respiration and photosynthesis for example). But they work. For most intensive purposes. Surely then, we must forgive the RE curriculum failing to contrast the theological doctrines of Thomas Aquinas to Duns Scotus, or comparing the Sunni Schools of jurisprudence? I will not put forward a proposal for desirable complexity of religious education, but I will say this much; gross simplifications are exponentially more detrimental to pupils studying religion (or history) then science. It does not significantly hurt pupils outlook on science to be unaware that cells contain more organelles (sub structures) then they encounter at GCSE level. Nor will the simplified atomic model they learn at this stage decrease their respect for chemistry.
History and religion are very different. Dumbed down narratives of the world will be taken seriously, and inform our world views. A religion taught in simplistic terms will be considered, itself naïve, simplistic and outdated. Simplified historical ideas too, will make pupils think history is just simple. Hence, I often hear soundbites from pupils claiming that ‘the Russians only defeated the Nazis because of the winter’ (which evidently was responsible for the devastating counter attack and encirclement of the 6th army), ‘science only began in the Renaissance,’ ‘the Romans were the first (yes seriously) people to link dirt and disease.’
I do not claim to have an arsenal of quick but workable solutions to reverse what I view as a biased (whilst masquerading as ‘objective’) and simplistic approach to teaching pupils. Certainly, religious education could improve its discussion of intra-religious diversity. Currently such discussion usually entails contrast between ‘traditionalists’ who are puritanical, regressive and belligerent, and ‘liberals’ who are less so, usually because we are given the impression that they take their religion less seriously. This is not the fault of individual teachers as much as their conforming to the modern societal paradigm whereby our de facto religion is liberalism (which like other religions has its beliefs, narratives, taboos, prophets and heretics) and of course materialism. According to both, any divine power is an unnecessary interloper, both socially (where any world view influenced by religion is extreme; the secular term for ‘heretical’) and scientifically (where most scientists and laypeople today consider science and philosophical materialism synonymous). This explains why most people in the west have such as woeful conception of religion and view it as an optional but most unnecessary ‘add on,’ rather than a holistic world view which informs our life’s choices. The logical conclusion, given what we are taught, is to reject this add on for its scientific redundancy, and irrelevance in life’s affairs.
The secular liberal establishment deserves considerable credit however, for skilfully convincing people that rejecting any concept of religion or significant spirituality is a sign of independence and ‘freethought.’ These include otherwise intelligent people who sneer at working class supporters of Donald Trump or Nigel Farage for being gullible enough to believe that they are sticking two fingers up at the political and economic establishment. The reverse of course is true; moving in a secular direction, even were it the best course of action, is not the act of a beleaguered soul swimming against an ocean of irrationality and superstition, but one swimming very much with the tide.
I will conclude by iterating that regardless of the harshness of my critique, the UK education system is not systematically malevolent, and remains, in other ways, one of the best in the world. It is a far cry from the atheistic regimes which have outright banned teaching of religion and overtly enforced an atheistic curriculum. Problems in the UK education system also pale in comparison to that of other ‘religious’ societies which give far more incentive to young people to reject religion or spirituality then ours; Saudi Arabia for instance. I must also reiterate that this propagation of atheism is seldom consciously done on an individual teacher level. Whilst I have witnessed a couple of teachers cynically smuggle in their atheism to make it seem like the only logical outcome, most just follow the script. If the RE exam board rewards dumbed down and unnuanced answers, why wouldn’t a teacher teach it? If our anti catholic heritage (now generally applied to ‘religion’) permeates into much of our history curriculum, most teachers will simply teach it. If there is an absence of recognition that religious faith has not only coexisted with science but in the minds of many religious scientists themselves, facilitated it, few teachers will mention, or even be aware of this.
In many aspects, the UK education system provides good, holistic education to most of its learners. Most schools teach pupils to be diligent, tolerant and kind. Compared to most other countries, pupils are not taught to be blindly jingoistic and most pupils I teach show genuine open mindedness towards people, countries and cultures. These open minds however are being fed simplistic (mis)information on a regular basis, regarding the past, present and future of religion and spirituality. Being stripped of bias may be an impossible quest, but we should recognise our biases, and the biases which characterise much of what we teach, in order to give the next generation the truly balanced education which they justly deserve.